Al-Mutanabbi Street was the thousand-year-old heart of the bookselling and cultural life of Baghdad until a car bomb destroyed it in 2007.
You won’t see it on any street sign. But Chapel Street has for now become Al-Mutanabbi Street as a memorial exhibition of artists’ books, poetry, and broadsides in tribute opened at the Institute Library.
Curator Stephen Kobasa has assembled 18 broadsides and 28 fascinating artists’ books from the circulating library exhibition called Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.
The exhibition had its opening reception Saturday, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the bombing. It will run at the library through May 3, with the materials changed halfway through.
Kobasa has culled selections from the hundreds of works by letterpress artists and poets from around the world that San Francisco poet Beau Beausoleil assembled in the aftermath of the bombing.
Occasional art runs the risk of being, well, occasional, and therefore slight because it doesn’t come from a deep, well mulled over place, but an assigned spot.
That’s not the case here.
From conceptual pieces, such as a classic volume of children’s education with a bullet hole through the center, to subtler works, the exhibition by various pathways hits its mark.
To my eye the true treasures are the artists’ books. Deploying book artist creations that use photography, fabric, sculptured or collaged pieces, tiny items, and unfolding “accordion” books, Kobasa said his aim has been “to show the range in the small space of what people are thinking.”
That’s evident in the display case that contains Frances Jetter’s elaborate carved and painted book.
It unfolds its narrative, with conventional pictures and words, across the center of the case. It sits side by side with Stephanie Sauer’s far simpler creation, “I Dare You.”
The description of “I Dare You” materials tells the tale: “Ink, paper, linen, thread, white-out, sandpaper, matches.”
Beausoleil has the called the overall collection, which continues to grow and includes an anthology of poetry, not one of protest but one of solidarity. Kobasa said he thonks that disingenuous, especially at a time when our country is out of Iraq and memory is fading at the usual American warp speed of forgetfulness.
“We’re out [of Iraq] but the injury is visible, and it’s become more intense for the Iraqi people,” he said. “Our failure to register what we did” is one reason Kobasa wanted to do the exhibition.
A Yale University professor of Arabic, Dimitri Gutas (pictured), agreed: “The problem is always ignorance. People not knowing what is happening in Iraq, while we are responsible.”
He made that comment as he helped decipher the Arabic on Josef Beery’s calligraphy.
The trunk or arm of the tree-like image has “Books, Not Bombs” written on it. Above, in the branches that leaf out as a result, are the words : “Wisdom, Inspiration, Understanding.”
Gutas, who teaches only medieval Arabic, said the only modern word “qanabil,” or “bombs.” He said classical Arabic had no word for bomb.
Gutas also said that the 10th-century Iraqi poet after whom the street and exhibition are named was a beautiful writer. “He’s the Shakespeare of the Arabs,” he said. At that time the poems that Al-Mutanabbi wrote could make or break a person’s reputation. “You found out about people through poetry. It was like high-class TV,” a living part of the culture, and much less so now.
Gutas also liked Aileen Bassis’s artist book made up of calligraphy on photographs. Titled “Muslims in America,” its Arabic reads, according to his translation: “I’m sick and tired of defending my religion.”
“We can’t escape so easily as we think the consequences, even if they’re at a distance,” said Kobasa.